Chasing the sun

Thursday, 2 June 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Dozens of developing countries are in a race to increase solar power as the exploding industry sees an 80% fall in the cost of solar panels since 2010, but Sri Lanka remains far behind despite Government avowals to be dedicated to renewable energy. 

According to the latest data published by the International Renewable Energy Agency, an industry body, solar power is now standing shoulder to shoulder with coal and gas with prices poised to drop even further. The Sri Lankan Government, battered by disgusted public sentiment over recent power failures, has indicated it wants to expand to more solar but remains hamstrung by previous agreements to build coal power plants and shortsighted policies that refuse to reduce taxes on solar panels and other essential technology components.     

Across the developing world, solar power is hitting its stride. Rather than the rooftop panels popular in Germany, countries where solar irradiance is much stronger than northern Europe are creating vast parks with tens of thousands of flexible PV panels supplying power to their national grids. Some countries, such as China, provide generous subsidies (though these are sometimes years overdue). But in other countries solar PV is becoming competitive even without financial support.

In 2015 China surged past Germany to become the biggest producer of solar energy, benefiting from its dominance of solar-panel manufacturing and policies to reduce dependence on dirtier fuels, such as coal. Solar power accounts for just 3% of the electricity mix, but China is now building its biggest plant, in the Gobi desert. Analysts expect the country to install 12 gigawatts (GW) of solar in the first half of this year. That would be one-third more than the record amount America plans to build for the full year.

Even India, which is pushing the Sampur plant, is determined to keep up. Its Government is targeting a 20-fold increase in solar-power capacity by 2022, to 100GW. Though this might be over-ambitious, KPMG, a consultancy, expects solar’s share of India’s energy mix to rise to 12.5% by 2025, from less than 1% today. It thinks solar in India will be cheaper than coal by 2020. (Even Coal India, a mostly State-Owned Entity, plans to contract 1GW of solar power to cut energy bills.) Such is the frenzy that officials in sunny Punjab are urging farmers to lease their land to solar developers rather than till it, reports The Economist.

Led by big projects in these two countries, global solar-energy capacity rose by 26% last year. More remarkable is the decline in its cost. Studies of the “levelised cost” of electricity, which estimate the net present value of the costs of a generating system divided by the expected output over its lifetime, show solar getting close to gas and coal as an attractively cheap source of power.

Sri Lanka currently depends on fossil fuel based electricity generation for over 60% of its annual electricity requirements. Currently only three solar power plants are operated in Sri Lanka with a combined capacity under 1.4 MW. Local company LAUGFS kicked off what it hopes will be the country’s largest solar power project in February with a capacity of 20MW, and expects to eventually contribute 40GWh annually to the national grid. Other private firms through joint ventures could supply energy more efficiently and cheaper than the scandal-ridden Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). 

Large areas of Hambantota, Puttalam and Jaffna can be utilised to produce solar but national attention has been disappointing. Will policymakers get their act together in time?